NORTHERN Ireland fell to their first defeat of the UEFA Euro 2024 campaign as Michael O’Neill’s Belfast return ended in frustration at the National Stadium at Windsor Park.
The Finns, chasing their first points of Group H, secured a first win in 20 years over the Green and White Army thanks to Benjamin Kallman’s 28th minute strike
It was a moment to forget as Robin Lod’s cross took an unfortunate deflection, the ball falling kindly for the Cracovia striker to fire past Bailey Peacock-Farrell from close range.
Northern Ireland enjoyed long spells of possession and had a Dion Charles strike disallowed for handball in the 62nd minute as O’Neill’s first home game of his second spell as national boss ended in a narrow loss.
The Finns, who lost their opening pool game 3-1 to Denmark, won it on the half hour mark when Kallman pounced for his fifth international goal in 11 outings.
It was a scrappy one to concede. The lively Lod squeezed past Jordan Thompson and Jamal Lewis before arrowing a low cross across the penalty area.
Norwich City striker Pukki’s outstretched foot deflected the ball past Daniel Ballard and Kallman swept the ball past Bailey Peacock-Farrell from six yards out.
It was almost 2-0 soon after when Kallman found his strike partner inside the area, but Pukki’s initial effort was blocked by Ballard and his second parried by Peacock-Farell.
Charles, Northern Ireland’s two goal hero in Thursday’s 2-0 win in San Marino, was left wondering how he didn't add to his international tally on the brink of half-time.
Shea Charles released fellow teenager Conor Bradley and the on-loan Bolton Wanderers wing-back found his Trotters team mate with a superb pass.
A goal seemed certain but Charles’ point blank shot cannoned back off Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper Lukas Hradacky and the visitors cleared.
O’Neill was forced into a change when Ballard limped off in the 50th minute and the Sunderland defender’s replacement Josh Magennis almost made an instant impact.
Lewis dug out a looping cross for Conor Bradley who headed the ball down for Magennis 10 yards out, but the Wigan Athletic striker’s half-volley fizzed over the bar.
The Finns were hanging on and Dion Charles had the ball in the net from a half-cleared Paddy McNair corner as Northern Ireland chased an equaliser on the hour mark.
But referee Ivan Kruzliak blew immediately for handball and the Slovakian official’s decision was confirmed following a short VAR check.
Finland should have put the result beyond doubt when Lod’s whipped free-kick was parried by Peacock-Farrell, but Robert Ivanov’s follow-up volley soared into the East Stand.
Gavin Whyte, a replacement for Conor Washington, then forced a near post save from Hradecky before O’Neill introduced Isaac Price for only his second cap in the 79th minute.
Seven minutes of added time offered renewed hope of a late reprieve, but Finland held on to record their first win of what is gearing up to be an intriguing and open qualifying Group H.
Next up for Northern Ireland is a crucial June double header against Denmark (A) and Kazakhstan (H) who shocked the Danes 3-2 in Astana on Sunday afternoon.
NORTHERN IRELAND: Bailey Peacock-Farrell; Conor Bradley, Daniel Ballard (Josh Magennis 50), Craig Cathcart, Ciaron Brown, Jamal Lewis; Shea Charles (Isaac Price 79), Jordan Thompson (George Saville 79), Paddy McNair; Conor Washington (Gavin Whyte 69), Dion Charles.
FINLAND: Lukas Hradecky; Nikolai Alho (Robert Taylor 87), Leo Vaisanen, Robert Ivanov, Richard Jensen (Matti Peltola 52); Anssi Suhonen (Pyry Soiri 70), Robin Lod, Glen Kamara, Rasmus Schuller; Benjamin Kallman (Joel Pohjanpalo 87), Teemu Pukki (Marcus Forss 70).
REFEREE: Ivan Kruzliak (Slovakia)